Horry County in South Carolina is quickly becoming the deepest red area in the Palmetto State. Consider, for instance, that no opposing parties currently occupy a seat on the Horry County Council or the Horry County Schools Board of Education. In many cases, no member of an opposing party was even on the ballot. In 2020, only six races drew challengers from the Democratic party, leaving 22 races with only a Republican representing either of the major parties. In all contested races, Republican candidates took more than 60% of the vote. 1
To stem one-party rule in Horry, first Democrats need to locate organizations in the county that are already politically active and engaging the wider community. Next, Democrats should explore the mobilization potential of various demographic groups in the region including women, teachers, low and middle-class workers, retirees, liberal churches, college students, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community. Additionally, Democrats should begin combating outright conceptual falsities that stand as obstacles to creating progressive momentum.
In Horry County the gender ratio is 94 men to every 100 women. Total population is estimated at 298,832 people with 144,884 males and 153,948 females. This means there are 9,064 more women than men in the county, which is over 3% of the population. 2
One issue highly concerning to women in the Southern U.S. is equal pay for equal work. Women of all ages still only make 82% of what men make nationwide. The national average for full-time working women younger than 30 years old is earnings roughly 93% of what men in the same age range make. In Myrtle Beach, that figure is up to 97% for younger women and is the highest for any city in South Carolina. 3 So, at the beginning of one’s career, pay is roughly nearing equality for the sexes.
The reason the pay gap goes up later in work life: many women are expected to take care of children, neighbors, or elderly parents, which takes them out of the workforce for a period. Also, there is still the social phenomenon of the “glass ceiling,” where women can only move so far up the hierarchical corporate structure before metaphorically hitting their heads on an invisible barrier keeping them out of the upper echelons of management positions.
The state contains three teacher’s associations including the South Carolina Education Association, 4 the Palmetto State Teachers Association, 5 and SC Red for Education. 6 Common issues that teachers want to be addressed include providing competitive compensation, lowering classroom sizes, recruiting more mental health counselors, having less unnecessary testing, allotting more time for creativity and critical thinking, and getting the legislature to fully fund the school system.
Because of dismally low teacher salaries, there is a teacher shortage crisis in South Carolina. On average, SC schools have lost 6,634 teachers annually over the past five years. At the start of the 2020-21 school year, nearly 700 teaching positions were unfilled statewide, a 26% increase from the prior year. To remedy this lack of needed teachers, the Palmetto State Teachers Association suggests raising the starting salary from $36,000 to $50,000 over the next five years.
Low Income & Middle-Class Workers
Horry County currently has a labor pool of 156,859 workers where around 140,000 are employed at any given time. The unemployment rate hovers at around 3% and the average annual salary in the region is approximately $40,600. 7 The main economic organizing issue in Horry County is raising the minimum wage. South Carolina is known as a right-to-work state and has the least amount of union activity of any American state. Currently, union membership sits at 2%.
At this moment, South Carolina is using the federal minimum wage standard of $7.25 an hour, which was put into place in 2008. This means for almost 15 years, as prices in all industries have become massively inflated, the cost of labor has remained stagnant. If someone is making $7.25 an hour working 40 hours a week at 52 weeks a year, it comes to just over $15,000 and that’s before taxes. Researchers at MIT estimate that a living wage for one adult in Horry County would be $17.31 an hour. Add a child to that one adult household, a living wage would be calculated at $31.75. Two adults both working with two children would both need to make at least $22.18 an hour to secure a living wage. 8
Liberal & Progressive Churches
There are several affirming, inclusive, and welcoming progressive churches in Horry County that openly celebrate multiculturalism. Some of these congregations include Holy Cross Faith Memorial Episcopal Church, St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, Shepard of the Sea Lutheran Church, All Souls Waccamaw Unitarian Universalist Church, Five Rivers Friends Quaker Meeting House, and Unity Church in Myrtle Beach. These churches are openly affirming of LGBTQ+ peoples, allowing them to serve as clergy, and are happy to officiate same-sex marriages.
College & University Students
The two main higher education institutions in Horry County are Coastal Carolina University and Horry-Georgetown Technical College. Coastal Carolina is a public university serving over 10,000 students. Horry Georgetown Technical College is one of sixteen technical colleges in South Carolina and serves around 6,500 students. Coastal Carolina has a Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (D,E,I), which seeks to provide leadership, support, and resources for initiatives that proactively promote an institutional culture of inclusiveness. 9 Horry Georgetown Technical College also has a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council made up of serval faculty and staff. Their focus is to change stereotypes, promote a diverse recruitment plan for hiring practices, acting as advisors to the administration, and to provide ongoing training sessions related to unconscious bias in the workplace. 10 The D,E,I effort also includes a student club to foster awareness and acceptance among students that meets to discuss relevant contemporary social topics. 11
The main LGBTQ+ organizing group in the Horry County is Grand Strand Pride. 12 The organization holds rallies once a year at a local park in Myrtle Beach to celebrate LGBTQ+ Pride month. Also, the group gets politically involved by holding meetings that educate the community on candidates who pledge to promote queer equality. On their website, they offer a useful service to LGBTQ+ peoples by maintaining a list of local businesses that are friendly to alternative lifestyles including accountants, real estate brokers, attorneys, florists, physicians, artists, and wedding consultants. 13
Currently, South Carolina is home to over 400,000 veterans, and 10% of Horry County’s total population consists of those who have served. Almost half of Veterans in the state are 65 years of age or older, and a large majority (40%) of those served in the Vietnam War. Around 10% of the veteran population are those who served in either the Second World War or the Korean War, and the remaining half of all veterans served in the more recent Gulf Wars. 14 Issues that are top concerns for veterans are having access to the appropriate counseling and treatment resources, resisting any effort to privatize veteran’s affairs (VA) facilities, and expanding eligibility for benefits so that all veterans have uninterrupted access. Additionally, veterans want to ensure the G. I. Bill is fully funded so that all returning soldiers have an opportunity to earn a college education.
Seniors & Retirees
Despite the various groups identified for mobilization above, as important as they are, creating the necessary progressive momentum to challenge one-party rule in Horry County will take a laser-like focus on mobilizing rich, White, affluent, empathetic, progressive seniors. Looking at Horry County’s voter registration demographics, those 45 and up are most likely to be registered and are therefore the most important group to mobilize to change the political leadership of the county. In 2023, those between the ages of 18 and 44 comprised 76,710 potential voters, while those in the 45+ group represented 189,874 potential votes, which is more than double the younger population. 15
The everyday concerns of seniors mainly revolve around income security and access to great medical care.
Guaranteeing income security for Horry seniors starts with Social Security. According to the Census, 43% of households in Horry County receive Social Security. Any reduction in Social Security for these seniors would devastate their financial plans and must be strongly opposed. For other seniors, Social Security makes up their entire income. An estimated 20,000 Horry seniors fall into this category. Many of these seniors spend more than 30% of their income on rent or a mortgage, and have little left over for food, health care, and other essentials.
Obstacles to Progressive Momentum in South Carolina
Perceiving Taxing the Rich as a Problem
In much conservative rhetoric, the government, Washington D.C., or establishment politicians are negatively constructed as outgroup enemies. This is sustained by railing against taxes for the rich and threatening the working class that raising the minimum wage would be a disaster for the economy. This rhetoric is meant to shore up the financial interests of the ruling class while demoralizing and confusing the two-thirds of Americans who are living paycheck-to-paycheck. In fact, at present, we have not had as much wealth and income inequality in the U.S. since the Great Depression. This becomes clear when we compare the American situation to the other top 21 industrialized countries, which reveals that the U.S. ranks as the most economically unequal of them all. 16
Engaging in Culture War Battles Over Religious Convictions
Much of right-wing organizing appeals to fear-based beliefs that the government is going to take religious liberties away, force your child to attend a drag-queen story hour in the public school library, or allow teachers to talk about the nation in an overly critical manner. For instance, in 2023, Nikki Hailey, former governor of South Carolina and 2024 Republican presidential candidate, addressed some of these topics at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Much of her speech was used to attack what she calls “woke” politics, saying she’s running to “stop America’s downward spiral toward socialism and the self-loathing that has taken over our country.” 17
The term woke was originally coined by progressive Black Americans and used frequently in racial justice movements over the past century. To be woke politically is like the idea of consciousness-raising, where citizens become informed, educated, and conscious of social injustice and racial inequality. Hailey, and other right-wing leaders, have now co-opted the term and filled it with negative connotations, where hypothetical schoolteachers are indoctrinating children into believing that America is “flawed, rotten, and full of hate.”
Suppressing Sociopolitical Discourse in the Classroom
Recently state legislators have begun to construct bills that directly attack the underpinnings of sociological thought and seek to silence conversations on class, race, and gender in the K-12 classroom. One such bill in South Carolina, known as the Integrity in Education Act (S. 424/H. 4605), intends to create a kind of educational environment where discussion of foundational sociological concepts is banned from the classroom. 18
In one section, the bill states that an individual must not be compelled to “affirm, accept, adopt, profess, or adhere to concepts, forms of language, or definitions not firmly and widely established, empirically or scientifically accurate, or that are controversial or theoretical.” The concepts under question: gender theory, nonbinary pronouns, gender spectrum, unconscious or implicit bias, and race and gender as social constructs. However, all major introductory sociology texts contain and openly affirm all these concepts as vital disciplinary knowledge. If applied at the collegiate level, this statute would be virtually impossible for any academic sociologist to execute as these concepts are widely established in the discipline and have been verified as scientifically accurate.
The goal of this article was to ascertain where progressives are in Horry County and to explore their potential of becoming a countervailing political force in a one-party-dominated region. The researcher was able to locate several organizations in the county that are already politically active including seven Democratic clubs organizing voters, women connected to the state-wide Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network fighting for bodily autonomy, three teacher’s associations desiring educational reform, a number of progressive churches open to all peoples, college student groups like Grand Strand Action Together who are actively organizing protest events, LGBTQ+ folks who rally around Grand Strand Pride for more queer representation, veterans who deserve honor for defending the country, and empathetic seniors who are champions of democratic concerns like voting rights.
The ethnography revealed that there are several political issues that must be addressed to fully take advantage of the mobilization potential for each of the above-mentioned groups.
- For women, the top concerns are equal pay for equal work and the right to bodily autonomy when making private healthcare decisions.
- For teachers, the top issues are competitive compensation and being treated like college-educated professionals in the classroom.
- For low-income and middle-class workers, the top issue is raising the minimum wage to a living wage, which would be at least $17 hourly for a one adult household.
- For progressive churches, the top concern is helping the poor gain access to a larger social safety net (e.g., access to food, clothing, housing, education, and healthcare).
- For college students, the top concerns are not living a life of debt and being more inclusive of minority groups. For the LGBTQ+ community, the top concern is ridding the region of openly hostile forms of sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and gender oppression.
- For veterans, the top concern is having access to appropriate mental health resources and receiving well-deserved tax exemptions for their service.
- For seniors, the top concerns are maintaining Social Security and Medicare, so that they can retire with a good measure of income security and open access to medical care.